Breck’s team: Community support assists Vipers to historic season
Since its inception in 2015, the Breckenridge Vipers have had two motives: playing good, old fashioned hockey and supporting the Summit County community.
Colorado native Rick Batenburg says the dream of starting a semi-professional hockey team in Summit County began after he graduated college and started working for Merrill Lynch as a financial adviser.
Batenburg has played hockey his entire life, including at the collegiate level while attending Nichols College in Massachusetts, but post-graduation there was something missing, he said.
Playing in a recreational league down in Denver, where he grew up, didn’t give Batenburg the same gratification as playing the high speed, competitive hockey he was used to.
Then one day, Batenburg’s eyes were opened to small, mountain-town hockey.
“What happened was that a old hockey buddy invited me to play an exhibition hockey game against Vail,” Batenburg said. “I still remember the phone call. I asked him if I need my shoulder pads, and he gave me an empathetic yes.”
Batenburg arrived in Vail to a sold-out crowd and was blown away by the support the team had garnered. He said it was the seed for what eventually blossomed into the Vipers.
“I just wanted to play good hockey again,” Batenburg said. “I just wanted to compete.”
The experience in Vail also brought Batenburg back to when he played junior hockey in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada for three years where it is common for ice arenas to be packed with hockey fans on a Saturday night with nothing else to do in a small town.
Calling up a few of his old hockey friends, Batenburg formed an exhibition team to take on the Vail Yeti. The Vail Yeti had not lost a game in close to 10 years but Batenburg’s ragtag team skated into Dobson Arena in Vail and beat the Yeti — officially the first win in Vipers history.
Following the win, Batenburg began looking for an ice arena that would sell him ice to house a semi-professional hockey team. Batenburg knew if he put a good product on the ice that people would come like he had seen in Canada.
In 2016, the Vipers began playing at Stephen C. West Ice Arena with Batenburg at the forefront alongside his former teammates.
For the first three years, the Vipers played without a single sponsor. Batenburg was faithful that, with time, his vision for the team would be actualized with support from the community and sponsors.
Three seasons later, the Vipers received their first sponsor — Kaiser Permanente — and companies have continued to step up to sponsor the team since then. Now the Vipers are sponsored by several local companies, including the likes of Ollie’s Pub and Grub and Grand Lodge.
“This year was the first year where I didn’t actually lose money,” Batenburg said. “It was always about providing something cool for the players, the fans and the town. To give something for the town to rally around.”
Being a 501(c)(3) nonprofit means that all the money at the end of the season is put back into the community.
With this model behind them, Batenburg says the Vipers have continually gained in popularity each season. However, when the pandemic happened at the tail end of the 2019-20 season, Batenburg worried that all the hard work he and his team had done over the last few years would be tarnished and that he would lose the team.
“I didn’t know if the town was going to forget about us or not,” Batenburg said. “The model doesn’t work without the fans. No fans, no sponsors. It costs me so much money to put a game on. I couldn’t do it without the fans.”
The Vipers returned in November 2021 to Stephen C. West Ice Arena and were met by a plethora of fans who were ready to call Breckenridge a hockey town once again.
Throughout the rest of the season the support to continued to grow in ways the team has never experienced in its history. The team sold out the ice arena for most of its home games, and fans rallied around the team every game.
“I was overwhelmed when we did the home opener and everyone was so happy to be there,” Batenburg said. “It was meaningful to me because I had worked so hard. For them to continue to support us after a 15 month hiatus was so meaningful.”
Something that makes the Vipers so unique is how localized the team is. The vast majority of the players are residents of Summit County. Some have even grown up playing hockey in the county or are coaches for the Summit Youth hockey program.
Sean Costello is one Vipers member who grew up in Summit and played hockey for Summit High School. Costello has been playing on the team for three seasons and says this past season was one to remember.
“This season was so cool for us,” Costello said. “My little brother plays for the Summit youth team, and him and all his buddies would come to the games in their Vipers hoodies and get autographs. It’s cool to connect with the fans in that way.”
The Vipers plan to continue growing throughout the next few years. The team will play in the Black Diamond Hockey League next season, which will feature Sun Valley, Idaho; Jackson Hole, Wyomong; Reno, Nevada; Park City, Utah; Irving, Texas; Vail; and Bozeman, Montana.
Along with the addition of the new league, which will feature playoffs at the end of the season, the team will house former NHL players Drew and Nick Shore.
“This is Breck’s team,” Batenburg said. “It is here for Breck and I couldn’t do it without the town’s support. Without the town none of this would have been possible. I could’ve cried the first time the stands were packed for a game.”
The Breckenridge Vipers are looking for more sponsors for the 2022-23 hockey season as well as to potential nonprofits that want to host a benefit game. Thos who are interested are invited to email Rick Batenbrug at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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